Honoring Senator George J. Mitchell

>> Read George Mitchell’s honorary degree citation

Senator George J. Mitchell remarks:

President Hanno, the graduates, families, staff, guests—it’s a great honor for me to be here at Wheaton College and to receive this honorary degree in the distinguished company of Callie Crossley and Rose Weaver. This is a great institution, which has contributed much to the community, to the state and to the nation.

Commencement is a time to discuss values. And I have been at many, many commencements, so I know that for most of you right now the highest value is brevity. Through most of the minds seated here, “How long is he going to talk?” is the principal question. So I want to begin by assuring you that I hope to stop speaking before you stop listening.

The second value I will mention to the graduates is self-confidence, how to strike the right balance between believing in yourself and not taking yourselves too seriously. I want to tell a story about that.

I speak so often that for me, frankly, the highlight of the day is the introduction. And I want to thank Tyler [James Tyler Butler ’18] for that wonderful introduction. It’s always a pleasure to hear nice things said about yourself, especially in front of a large group of mostly strangers. The risk, of course, is if you hear that stuff too often you might begin to believe it, and that’s dangerous for your mental health. So I would like to begin with a story about introductions and an occasion on which I was brought back down to earth.

I spent five years’ work on the peace process in Northern Ireland. When my work was complete, I returned to Maine and wrote a book about my experience. When it was published, I traveled the country on a book promotion tour. I received a very large number of invitations, and in that process I learned the interesting fact that in the United States, there are more Irish-American organizations than there are Irish Americans. Every one of them invited me to come. I couldn’t go to all, but I did go to many. And as I traveled the country speaking to these groups of Irish Americans, there developed among them an informal competition as to who could give the longest, most fantastic, often truly ridiculous introductions of me.

The proper reaction, of course, would have been for me to show some humility, ask them to keep it short, but I had an improper reaction. I loved it. I encouraged it. I scolded them when they left something out. So by the time I got to the last stop on this book tour, it was in Stamford, Connecticut, I was overly impressed with myself. As I entered the building where the event was being held that evening, the first person I encountered was an elderly woman who rushed up to me very nervous and excited, shook my hand vigorously, spent several minutes praising me, then she said, “I don’t live anywhere near here. I drove three hours across the entire state of Connecticut just to come here to tell you how much I admire you and ask you, please, would you autograph my poster?” She had a poster with a big photograph on it. She handed it to me with a pen. I looked at it. I said, “I’m very happy to sign your poster, but before I do, I think there is something I must tell you.”

She said, “What is it?”

I said, “I’m not Henry Kissinger.” It was a picture of Kissinger.

She said, “You’re not? Well who are you, anyway?”

When I told her, she said, “Why that’s just terrible. I drove three hours to meet a great man and all I got is a nobody like you.”

I said, “I’m sorry you feel so bad. I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better.”

After a moment she said, “Well, there is.” When I asked what it was, she leaned forward, I leaned forward. We were sort of in a conspiratorial crouch. And she said, “Nobody will ever know the difference.” She said, “Would you mind signing Henry Kissinger’s name to my poster?”

So I did. And it is still hanging today on her living room wall in Eastern Connecticut, a daily reminder to me not to take too seriously all of these nice words.

Let me speak seriously about you, our country and your future. More than two centuries ago, our founding fathers created a revolution on the soil of North America and in the world of ideals. They took the best of ancient Greek democracy and of the Age of Reason in Europe and they created a new system and a new spirit. Their ideals are now valued worldwide.

The collapse of communism and the triumph of democracy were major events in the 20th century. As a result, American power has ascended in the world. Power is clearly important, and we must be prepared to use it, including military force, where necessary and appropriate. But the real strength of America is in our ideals. They’re not easily summarized, but they are set forth in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and, surely, they include the sovereignty of the people, the primacy of individual liberty, an independent judicial system, the rule of law applied equally to every citizen and crucially to the government itself, and opportunity for every member of our society. Neither we, nor anyone else, should ever forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great military power or economic power.

We recognize that all human beings and all human societies are imperfect. We are not always right and we can never be perfectly consistent, yet we can and must work harder and better to live up to our principles as individuals and as a nation.

We’re fortunate to be Americans, to live in a society which, despite our many and serious imperfections, is still to me the most free, the most just, the most open in all of human history. From that society, each of us receives many benefits. With benefits come responsibilities. You graduates have the good fortune to receive an advanced education at a highly rated institution of higher education. You have an important role to play in preserving and improving our way of life. There is much for all of us to do. Each of you will have your own list of what you see as our society’s challenges and its failings. I will mention just two that have been important to me throughout my public career.

If you believe that every American child, regardless of background or family wealth, is entitled a good education, you must oppose any action that would prevent them from having that opportunity. If you believe that every American is entitled to equal opportunity and equal justice, you must stand up and speak out against all forms of discrimination and injustice. Never forget that, in the presence of evil, silence makes you an accomplice.

The education you have received is important, even necessary, but it is not a guarantee of self worth. What you do is important. How you do it is just as important. If you take pride in what you do, you will excel. If you do not take pride in what you do, you cannot excel.

The philosopher John Gardner put it best when he wrote: “An excellent plumber is infinitely more admirable than an incompetent philosopher. The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because it is regarded as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

Before I entered the United States Senate, I had the privilege of serving as a federal judge. My favorite task was when I presided over what are called naturalization ceremonies. They are citizenship ceremonies. A group of people who come from all over the world, and are going through the required procedures, gathered before me in a federal courtroom in my home state of Maine. And there I administered to them the oath of allegiance to the United States, and by the power vested in me under our constitution and law, I made them Americans.

It was always a very emotional event for me because my mother was an immigrant, my father the orphaned son of immigrants. My parents had no education. My mother could not read or write. My father was a janitor at a local school. But because of their efforts and because of the openness of American society, I, their son, was able to get the education they never could have and was able to become the majority leader of the United States Senate.

After every ceremony, I made it a point to speak personally with each new citizen individually or in family groups. I asked them how they came, why they came. Their answers were as different as the countries of origin, but there were common themes, and they were best summarized by a young Asian man when I asked why he came. He replied in slow and halting English, “I came because here in America, everybody has a chance.”

Think about the fact that a young man who had been an American for ten minutes, and who could barely speak English, was able to sum up the meaning of our country in a single sentence. America is freedom and opportunity, a society in which no one should be guaranteed success, but every single one should have a fair chance to succeed.

I hope that each of you graduates leaves this ceremony with a sense of accomplishment and a burning desire to take your life to the next level.

For most human beings, life is, in essence, a never-ending search for respect. First and foremost important, self respect, then the respect of others. There are many ways to achieve respect, but to me none is more certain or rewarding than in service to others.

You are very fortunate in the education you have received and the opportunities that will be available to you. It is inevitable and appropriate that you will devote much of your life to earning the income you need to support yourself and your family. You will want rewards. Well, status. And many of you will get them. But the more things you acquire, the more evident it will become to you that there’s much more to life. What you will find is that fulfillment in your life will not come from acquisitions, not from leisure, not from self-indulgence. Real fulfillment in life will come from striving with all of your physical and spiritual might for a worthwhile objective that helps others and is larger than your self-interests. I hope that each of you graduates is fortunate enough to find such an objective in your life.

Congratulations. Good luck. May God bless each one of you.